It was the album of a generation — a bestseller boasting hits galore and a backstory that would rival Dynasty and Dallas and the other TV soaps soon to emerge.
It was made by a colorful, attractive band whose first Rolling Stone cover depicted all five band members in bed together.
The year was 1977, the band was Fleetwood Mac, and the album was Rumours.
Incredibly, it turns 40 this week, on Feb. 4.
To say that Rumours changed popular culture would not be an exaggeration. It was the album that lifted what had been a successful, long-lived, onetime British blues band into the sales stratosphere; that launched the unforgettable image of the bejeweled, twirling, scarf-bedecked, deliberately mystical singer Stevie Nicks; that was filled with catchy but often deeply personal songs about disintegrating relationships — and, not incidentally, a polished piece of pop perfection that sounds equally inspirational four decades on.
A significant amount of drugs were involved in its making.
But then, that was the ‘70s, wasn’t it?
Founded in 1967 in London by legendary blues guitarist Peter Green, Fleetwood Mac played wonderful music but changed band members with alarming regularity. By the time Rumours had come to be, gone were great slate of players including guitarists Green, Jeremy Spencer, Danny Kirwan, and America’s own Bob Welch — and in were the colorful pair of Nicks and onetime romantic partner Lindsey Buckingham. They’d joined the band in 1975, and with remaining Mac members Mick Fleetwood and then-married couple John and Christine McVie, recorded an eponymous album that — unexpectedly for all concerned — hit No. 1 and would go on to sell more than 5 million copies.
Then things really got weird.
With the last album’s success of the Christine McVie-penned “Over My Head” and “Say You Love Me” and Stevie Nicks’s own, culturally myth-making “Rhiannon,” recording a follow-up might have been a breeze. But it absolutely was not. Not helping? The decaying personal relationships of literally every band member. The McVies had split and were barely communicating; Buckingham and Nicks were a couple no more; and drummer Fleetwood himself was facing an on-again/off-again relationship with wife Jenny Boyd, which finally ended in 1978.
And about the drug thing: “Those days were crazy,” drummer Fleetwood would later tell writer Craig Rosen in his book The Billboard Book of Number One Albums (Billboard Books, 1996). “It’s no secret that we were definitely abusing drugs in those days. It was one major lunatic party.”
Finally, there was an almost freakishly obsessive drive to record a sonically perfect follow-up. The band first moved en masse to Sausalito, spent nine weeks recording material they ultimately found unsatisfactory, stopped to tour a bit while Fleetwood Mac reached Billboard’s No. 1 slot, then watched in horror as their intended master tapes for the new album started wearing thin due to multiple overdubbing.
But when it was done, it was done, and Rumours — as it was called, at John McVie’s suggestion — was first announced by the December 1976 arrival of lead-up single “Go Your Own Way,” a top 10 hit with a telling title and lyric that well represented the coming album’s emotionally turbulent themes.
And then: BOOM!
Rumours soared to No. 1, knocking off no less than the Eagles’ Hotel California, and with its surplus of new hits including “Dreams,” “Don’t Stop,” and “You Making Loving Fun,” stayed there for 31 weeks. It would later win the 1977 Grammy for Album of the Year, sell more than 45 million copies worldwide, and in 2014 receive the extremely rare diamond (translation = even better than gold or platinum) certification from the RIAA for U.S. sales of over 20 million. And that was three years ago.
But back then, success — and excess–was taking its toll. There was rough emotional going, and while other albums by this diamond-version Mac would follow — the rewarding and experimental Tusk, a live set, the mildly disappointing Mirage, and the extraordinary (and soon to be re-released in a deluxe version) Tango in the Night — Lindsey Buckingham would then depart, and things were never quite the same again.
While there was an unexpected respite in 1993, when the full band memorably reunited for President Bill Clinton’s inauguration ball and gave “Don’t Stop” — Clinton’s chosen campaign song — an unexpected re-performance, solo albums by nearly every Mac member was the norm for most of the ‘90s.
Fast forward to May 22, 1997, and guess who’s back? Live on a Burbank soundstage, celebrating the 20th anniversary of Rumours, it’s the newly reunited Fleetwood Mac: Buckingham, Nicks, Fleetwood, and the McVies. If making that album had been a case study of study of the impact of excess on business efficiency, time has changed much: From this reunion performance would come an MTV special, a separate VH1 special, a live album (The Dance), and eventually a home video release. And it all served as a preview for an upcoming live tour. Fleetwood Mac: They’re back!
It is still May 1997, a bit later, and I am sitting in a small waiting room in Conway Studios in Hollywood. In one of those uniquely journalistic scenarios, while I sit in the room, recorder and notes nearby, each of the members of Fleetwood Mac is brought in for questioning. Surreal? You bet.
Lindsey Buckingham is discussing his original reason for departing the band back in 1987. “It really was a survival move, emotionally and physically,” he says. “It was just the atmosphere was not very conducive to being creative. A lot of the people had personal problems. It was just in order to regroup — and get back on a track where I felt I was really grounded in the process again, and was sort of, in theory, doing it for the right reasons again.”
Rumours and all that it entailed did much for popular culture, but it’s a good bet it did even more for — and to — the five members of Fleetwood Mac who were a part of it.
Buckingham says the time away from the band has done him very well indeed. “I’ve settled down a lot emotionally, and a lot of that comes from just having been away,” he says. “Really, you break up with Stevie in ‘77, and then you work with her for the next 10 years. I mean, it’s just not normal. It’s just not the way it’s done.” He laughs.
“And you would think, ‘Well, 10 years, get over it, buddy,’ but certain things just did not get resolved until I removed myself from the situation. So there’s that, there’s the fact that everyone’s habits are little bit different now. I mean, Stevie especially — she’s like very reminiscent of the person I used to live with, the person I fell in love with. There’s a sweetness that was totally absent, or blank, before.”
Later, and separately, Stevie Nicks is sitting down, exuding warmth, candor, and the sort of difficult-to-pinpoint personal appeal that made her an entire generation’s most-favorite-ever Welsh Witch.
Did she ever wish things in Fleetwood Mac, back in those days, had gone down differently?
“Oh, it could never have been any different than it was,” she says with absolute conviction. “You know, Lindsey and I didn’t even drink when we joined Fleetwood. We couldn’t afford to drink. So we started drinking like anybody else starts drinking — just to handle the mental pressure. We were really young, you know? Twenty-seven years old, really, really young, and this was all so big and so heavy around us, and people expected so much from us. And all of a sudden we went from barely having enough money to pay for a small apartment to being rich overnight — and how do you deal with that when you’re 27 years old?
“You kind of don’t deal with it very well. And nobody dealt with it very well.
“But all of those problems, and all of those drugs, and all of the fun and all of the craziness, all made for writing all those songs. If we’d been a big healthy great group of guys and gals that just were, you know…” She looks for a word that conveys regular or ordinary. “…then none of those great songs would’ve been written, you know?”
Reconfirming that point of view with warmth, charm, and noticeably excessive height, lanky drummer Mick Fleetwood takes his seat at Conway and discusses the mythology of the Mac, of that Rumours time and all that came with it. And even later.
“No matter how many horrors stories people were told,” he says, “and how many horror stories we told, I think you’ll find when you speak with everyone — the reality is that we never lost, there’s a real underlying love, a true love that is fairly unique, in this band, in my opinion. We’ve all done terrible things to one another, just as lovers do. And now, we truly look at that and go, there’s business involved, but this is not business.”
It was an interesting time back then in 1997, for Fleetwood Mac and how Rumours was then perceived. Don’t forget, it came at the height of punk rock’s popular emergence, and in some ways the band and all they represented — dollars, lifestyle, conspicuous consumption — was the antithesis of all then deemed cool. But not for long. Conspicuous era hipsters like Billy Corgan and Courtney Love were singing Fleetwood Mac’s praises back then. Corgan’s Smashing Pumpkins would go on to cover “Landslide,” and Love herself took on “Gold Dust Woman” and “Silver Springs.”
Buckingham mentions it when we speak of the timeliness of the Mac’s 1997 reunion. “You’ve got this whole younger group of people whose parents used to come see shows,” he says. “And they know the Fleetwood Mac music on record, and maybe because people like Courtney and Smashing Pumpkins have sort of been vocal about saying, ‘Hey, Fleetwood Mac is, whatever, not the enemy anymore — or whatever you want to say about that. The timing of that is great.”
And while the music of Corgan and Love continues to fall in and out fashion, in 2017 the 40-year-old Rumours sounds as fresh and inspiring as ever. These days, music reviewers refer to it when they want to describe a new musical work reflecting deep personal turmoil, frazzled relationships, even gleeful excess, etc. And its impact has only grown with time. As of today, “Go Your Own Way” has been played 110,903,863 times on Spotify — and I reckon that it will continue to be listened to long after that streaming music service ends its run.
Of all people, it might be Nicks who nails what it is that makes Rumours so special.
She is recounting what it felt like to perform that material again — with Fleetwood Mac, in front of that live audience. The reception could not have been more enthusiastic, I tell her.
“It makes you feel a little bit like you’re having a kind of a holy experience,” she says, a bit of the mystic apparently hitting her. “Like we’re all going back to how we were when we heard ‘Gold Dust Woman’ on the radio — when we were driving down the street with the top down on the car, we’re all back there, and the ‘silver spoon’ and ‘dig your grave’ lyrics, and ‘Don’t Stop.’
“It’s like, when I think of those songs, I remember where I was and what I was doing when I was hearing them. And I can see it in people’s faces. I can see… it’s like all of us get to go back. For a little while in time, we get to escape back there.”